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Setting the stage for the Democratic Party's unconventional convention

John Dickerson on an unconventional convention
John Dickerson on an unconventional convention 03:37

American political conventions have been shrinking, and in the age of COVID-19, they will shrink right down to the size of a computer screen. 

The Democratic convention will take place not in Milwaukee, but almost entirely in cyberspace. Many speeches will be pre-recorded, and the Democratic nominee will not be in the same hall as his delegates.

At the Democratic National Convention this year, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris will be accepting their party's nominations via cyberspace.  CBS News

Political conventions used to be gaudy and important affairs. Power-brokers jostled, thrill-seekers gawked, and those with a fondness for buttons, pins and hats peacocked for each other. 

The stakes were high. Conventions were where parties actually picked their nominees. Sometimes that led to pushing and shoving. Almost anything could happen, such as at the 1980 Republican Convention, when the question of who Ronald Reagan would pick as his running mate was still a mystery. On the Democratic side that year, Senator Ted Kennedy came close to unseating incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

1980 was the last time drama was allowed to attend a convention.

Party organizers have banished serendipity. When the curtain lifts, the nominee is well-known, and the only drama has been the low-grade theatrics from the candidates who lost. 

The only surprise left in the modern convention was how long the evening would wear on, as audiences on a hair-trigger-to-holler interrupted with too much applause. But even that will be gone this week. During a pandemic, you can't back-slap from six feet away. 

A view of the Democratic National Convention in 2012, when social distancing wasn't yet a thing.  CBS News

We got a preview of that last week, when Joe Biden announced his running mate to a quiet room instead of billowing cheers

But if conventions have had to manufacture drama in recent years, this year's minimalist version is necessary because there is so much drama. America is in the middle of a pandemic, economic collapse, and a public reckoning with systemic racism. 

Joe Biden's message will be that he can build bridges to heal a fractured country. His choice of Kamala Harris, more than 20 years his junior, is a bridge to a future of a diversifying America with mixed heritage more like hers than the America of Biden's youth in Scranton, Pa., where he was born 77 years ago, and which will be a part of the week's re-introduction of a politician who has spent 48 years in public service. 

But Biden will also sell himself as a bridge to the past, a past that respected character, honesty and restraint in the office of the presidency, ideas right out of the civics book that the campaign hopes will sound like indictments of the incumbent, President Trump. The pitch, as President Obama has put it, is a return to basic decency. 

All of it at times makes Biden sound like the Mr. Rogers of politics, asking a divided and socially-distant nation: "Won't you be my neighbor?"

Don't miss CBS News' coverage of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, beginning Monday, August 17 at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBSN.

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Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Joe Frandino.

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